Sunday saw the annual general meeting of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) in San Roman, Corozal, geographically halfway between the two divisions of the Association. The largest turnout in recent memory gathered at the Escuela Mexico, where over 1,000 farmers were present to hear from their executive and lend their voices to the ongoing debate over payment on the bagasse that is a by-product of sugar cane. Producers Belize Sugar Industries Limited (BSI) have been adamant about not paying farmers for the so-called “trash,” claiming sole responsibility for its disposal because, it says, it buys all cane from the farmers which then becomes its property. Not so, says the farmers, who have been clamoring since 2010 to receive a share of the bagasse profits gone to BSI under the 2002 agreement between them. During yesterday’s meeting, farmer Genaro Garcia introduced a resolution ratifying those passed at divisional level to not start this year’s crop until a satisfactory solution is reached on bagasse. Here is that portion of the proceedings.
Mr. Genaro Garcia- Cane Farmer Activist
We, as the Orange Walk Division of the BSCFA of the 2nd November at 2013, at Crystal Palace Auditorium, passed a motion stating that if a new commercial agreement which includes, “If the payment of bagasse is not signed with BSI, no sugarcane will be delivered”. Whereas the Corozal Division of BSCFA on the 10th November at 2013, at the CCC Auditorium, passed a motion stating that if a new commercial agreement which includes, “If the payment of bagasse is not signed with BSI, no sugarcane will be delivered”. Therefore, be it resolved that the general membership of the BSCFA, being duly conformed to be a legal constituted goal and be present that voted today, those hereby, request that this meeting be held today on the 24th November 2013 at the Escuela Secundaria Tecnica Mexico, accepts and votes in favour to ratify the motions passed by the above divisions held on teh 2nd and 10th November 2013″.
“Of course it will create a loss if we don’t start but as you know, we have been calling for this negotiation from last December. In fact, we started from 2010 asking B.S.I. to come and negotiate, but since there were some issues…some financial problems that BSI encountered, a pause came by and then we sent our proposal to them in December so that we can finalize this situation before we reach to this date which was the proposed date to start the crop. So, we were looking forward into finalizing this, but it seems to be that they are in a different page…in a different picture. We are looking forward to finalize this issue, so that losses could be very small to the farmers”.
With the mandate from the A.G.M. behind them, Ortega says they want B.S.I. to negotiate in true good faith.
Mr. Alfredo Ortega: “Well, that is one of the problems whereby we are seeking intervention from the government because we are seeing that BSI is dragging their foot in this issue that they don’t want to negotiate in regards to the bagasse…that they…are saying with a flat NO to this issue. We are saying, let us negotiate; let us share with us part of the use that you are doing with the bagasse to fuel the BELCOGEN plant. BSI is not acting in a good faith because if they would be acting in good fatih, we should have already finalized with this issue”.
B.S.C.F.A. is to write Prime Minister Dean Barrow this week seeking intervention after Deputy PM and Minister of Agriculture Hon. Gaspar Vega met with both sides last week and called for them to return to the bargaining table while refusing to take sides. According to Ortega, potential dissenters will not get to see the benefits of the bagasse payment. BSI needs 5,000 tons of cane per day to operate the factory consistently but there will be grave consequences for the farmers who give them any.
Mr. Alfredo Ortega: “What we have presented in our proposal to BSI is a $10 per ton of sugar cane. That is what we believe we should be getting for the bagasse. In the other hand, we said yesterday, those farmers who would want to behave disorderly in a way that won’t want to cooperate, penalties will be placed upon them”.
Mr. Alfredo Ortega: “It is our hope that we finalize this agreement as early as we can; we hope that we can finalize within the next two weeks because really and truly we went through negotiation and we have covered almost 80% of our normal agreement that we have, based on issues that both of us had agreed upon. Is only burning the bagasse at this point in time. So, we believe that once we agree and once BSI is committed to negotiate in good will, we can finalize this negotiation, the least in a day and half or one day”.
Before and after the discussion, farmers ratified the reports of the various committees and divisions of the Association and supported its budget for the coming year.
And while neither side acknowledges that the bagasse issue is keeping them from starting the crop today as proposed, another major issue delaying the crop is bad infrastructure. Government’s plans to upgrade the sugar roads with funding from the European Union’s accompanying measures for sugar have taken a hit with the rains. The Government, according to BSCFA vice-chairman Alfredo Ortega, is needed to step in.
There is a particular concern with the San Estevan-Progresso road, which links two of the most productive villages in terms of sugar. CEO of the Association Oscar Alonzo told us that the Association will try to see where it can assist in fixing as many roads as possible.
Mr. Alfredo Ortega: “of course we mentioned that to the DPM and we told him that it is in our shoulder that we want him that it is in their shoulder to fix the sugar roads because the BSI has sent out that in their press release also, but that is in government side to do and the DPM said that there is a countrywide problem that is not only the north, but they are seeing priorities at this point in time. He said, if the crop is not prepared to start as as planned, they will be working in the villages and from thereafter, they will see how they can alleviate the situation”.